Hall of the disco king
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Prana has a soundstage look of the sort we haven't seen in restaurants around here since the late 1990s, when Entros and Mercury lived their firefly-brief lives. The main dining room is a vast hall whose ceiling is supported by two parallel columns of whitewashed pillars. With some flagons of mead and a clutch of bit actors in Viking period costume, it's easy to imagine a scene from Beowulf being filmed there maybe an early moment in which the warriors are sleeping one off while Grendel comes creeping from the bog.
But no. Prana, despite dim lighting and shadows high in the corners of the great room, is too festive for such gory spectacle. Its incipient energy is that of a nightclub or discotheque, and late at night it actually does become a club called Temple. This isn't surprising, since the space for more than a decade was home to DV8, a haunt of international reputation. (A few years on, toward the end of the millennium, it became Mercury, an unforgettable hall of glass and mirrors that lasted only a few weeks despite serving pretty good food.)
Chef James Jardine's cooking, pan-Indochinese with a dash of Filipino, is elegant, stylish, and imaginative. It also tries harder than it needs to; it's overachiever food, determined to be stimuutf8g at all times. Perhaps the kitchen feels it's in competition with the relentlessly antic setting. Prana starts tugging at your sleeve and winking at you before you even get inside; the main doors are a set of funhouse mirrors that make you look skinny going in and fat going out. Once inside, you'll find the music thumps steadily and rather loudly from clusters of huge speakers mounted overhead. As if that weren't enough, there's a huge display screen mounted behind the bar. The whole experience seems to be tuned for restless young people with short attention spans who might panic at any interruption in the stream of external sensation.
In such an environment, we can't really blame the food for raising its voice a little. And it does, practically from the first moment, when the server appears with a basket full of deep-fried wonton skins and toasted pita triangles, along with a trio of chutneys: chipotle, cilantro-mint, and tomato. Certainly there's more drama here than we would expect in a simpler, more traditional presentation of bread and butter or olive oil, and we found the chutneys to be excellent. But neither the wonton skins nor the pita triangles were of much use in dipping or sopping, and the result, for us, was a tablecloth decorated with dribblings ("It looks like a Jackson Pollock painting," my friend said) before we'd even ordered.
No spattering marred our enjoyment of spicy peanut soup ($9), weighted with basmati rice and shreds of roast chicken and amended with a pesto of vanilla bean and habañero chili that talked a big game but didn't bring much. It didn't need to; the basic soup was irresistible in a satay-sauce way, and a sprig or two of cilantro would have been an elegant, less effortful, finish.
The kitchen also cannily reinvented the lumpia ($10) a Filipino cousin to the egg roll by stuffing it with ahi tuna and serving it with a dipping sauce of garlic vinegar softened by açai, the Brazilian rainforest berry renowned for its antioxidant properties. Here the berry contributed mainly a pretty bluish-red color, while the tuna's creamy sweetness made an attractive contrast with the deep-fried skins of the lumpias.
Cooking a lamb shank ($22) in a Filipino adobo marinade of vinegar, garlic, soy sauce, and peppercorns was another fine idea executed with high skill. The resulting meat was lightly crisped at the edges but tender enough to fall off the bone. The shank was plated with a disk of forbidden rice, like pebbles of porphyry arranged into some kind of monument, and a heap of baby mustard greens for discreet healthfulness.
Vegetarian choices are lively. A curried vegetable potpie ($16) was a shade sweet for my taste, though the pastry itself, with its Shar-pei folds and Hershey's-kiss spire, was spectacular. The filling's sweetness was cut a bit by the sharp salad of peppercress and halved cherry tomatoes on the side.
Better-balanced was a portobello mushroom "scaloppine" ($16). The cap of the fungus had been coated with rice flour, which turned an appealing crunchy gold in the sauté pan. The heat released the mushroom's juices, as if it were a piece of steak. The cap was presented as a fan of slices, and the juices mixed with the chili-lime butter to make a slightly thickened sauce. The rest of the story was a small hedge of grilled Chinese broccoli and a neat square of polenta, wearing a strip of nori like a prize ribbon.
No matter what hoops a kitchen has set itself to jump through, there are certain dishes that don't need to be tinkered with, and one is crème brûlée ($7). But Prana tinkered, on a theme of bananas, and this turned out to mean not a banana-flavored custard but three thin strips of banana laid over the custard in lieu of the standard cap of caramelized sugar. Taste: good, but the banana strips were tough and unwieldy. More texturally pleasing was a shortbread tart ($8) filled with lemon curd and topped with a royal flush of ripe mango slices. They were soft, and soft was good. Now about the music ...
Dinner: Tues.Fri., 5:3010 p.m.
Sat., 510 p.m.
Lunch: Tues.Sat., 11 a.m.3 p.m.
540 Howard, SF
(415) 978-9942, ext. 319